The world is "heading towards a post-antibiotic era in which many common infections will no longer have a cure and, once again, kill unabated,” unless urgent action is taken to slow down the spread of drug resistance.

This was the warning spelt out by World Health Organisation director-general Margaret Chan, speaking on World Health Day, the theme of which is anti-microbial resistance. (AMR). The WHO states that antibiotics to treat diseases such as leprosy, tuberculosis, gonorrhoea and syphilis "have changed the course of medical and human history", but Dr Chan says the message "is loud and clear. The world is on the brink of losing these miracle cures” as high levels of drug resistance threaten their effectiveness.

Last year, at least 440,000 new cases of multidrug resistant-tuberculosis were detected, the WHO notes, and "the malaria parasite is acquiring resistance to even the latest generation of medicines". Serious infections acquired in hospitals can become fatal and resistance is also emerging to the antiretrovirals used to treat people with HIV.

Dr Chan says “the trends are clear and ominous. No action today means no cure tomorrow". She adds that "at a time of multiple calamities in the world, we cannot allow the loss of essential medicines – essential cures for many millions of people – to become the next global crisis".

Industry needs more incentives

The WHO says governments and partners need to work closely with industry to encourage greater investment in R&D of new diagnostics that can help improve decision-making as well as drugs to replace those that are being lost to resistance. Less than 5% of products in the pharma pipeline are antibiotics and "innovative incentive schemes are needed to stimulate industry to research and develop new antimicrobial drugs for the future".

The International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers & Associations backed the WHO's latest initiatives to raise awareness of the problem of antibiotics losing their effectiveness. David Brennan, IFPMA president and Astra Zeneca chief executive, said that “no single party alone can overcome the challenge of AMR: a multi-stakeholder approach is needed, one that includes leaders in government, science, economics, public policy, and philanthropy to help come up with creative solutions".

He added that the R&D-based pharmaceutical industry "recognises the role it has to play in this area of public health, but seeks support from other stakeholders in creating an environment that ensures new antibiotics continue to be developed".